What’s In A Name?  The Attitude Towards Names in Rabbinic Literature


by Gil Student


I. Introduction


There can be no question that the name by which a man is called plays a factor in how he sees himself.  There are many people who draw inspiration from their name or find in it hints of their inner selves.  But how much of this is creative interpretation or self-fulfilling prophecy and how much is divine inspiration?  The topic we wish to address in this essay is the attitude that rabbinic literature as a whole has towards people’s names.  Are parents prophetically inspired to give their children the correct name?  Do these names reflect a person’s future or ultimate personality?  Not surprisingly, there are many passages in the Talmud and Midrash that offer answers to these questions.  However, these answers need to be pieced together in order to form a comprehensive outlook.


This essay began as a comparison of different approaches to aggadata – and a critique of historical analyses – using names as a case study.  However, due to the proliferation in popular literature of partially quoted passages and simplistic explanations of the rabbinic attitude towards names this essay has evolved into a study of how Hazal viewed people’s names.  We will examine a number of contradictory passages and try to reconcile them in three different ways.  However, even among these different methodologies we will discern a general approach towards names that is quite different from the common view.  Additionally, we will look at the practical recommendations on how to give names.


What we will not do, though, is offer practical advice.  That is because this study is one of rabbinic attitudes and focuses mainly on the attitude evident in Talmud and Midrash.  It is not intended as a study of medieval and modern attitudes, both of which should play an important role in determining the current proper attitude towards names.  Also, this is an area that is rich with customs and people would be wise to take into account the very tangible issues of shelom bayit, kibbud av va’em, and minhag avot.  However, even as a merely theoretical exercise we believe this endeavor will be fruitful.


II. The Texts


The gemara in Yoma (83b) relates the following story:


R. Meir, R. Yehudah, and R. Yossi were going on a journey.  R. Meir deduced from names.  R. Yehudah and R. Yossi did not deduce from names.  When they reached a particular place they inquired of an innkeeper and were given one.  They asked him what his name was and he told them Kidor.  [R. Meir] said, “He must be a wicked man, as it says (Deut. 32:20) ‘For they are a treacherous generation (ki dor tahpukhot hemah).’”  R. Yehudah and R. Yossi entrusted their wallets with him.  R. Meir did not…  The next day, they said “Give us our wallets” and he replied “It never happened [i.e. you never gave them to me].”  R. Meir said to them, “Why did you not deduce from his name?”  They replied, “Why did you not tell us?”  He answered, “What I only said was that I suspected but I was not certain”…  Afterwards, they would deduce from names.  When they reached the house of someone named Balah they did not stay with him.  They said, “We know that he is wicked, as it says (Eze. 23:43) ‘Then I said, Ah she is worn out with adulteries (va’omar labalah ni’ufim).’”


It would seem from this passage that R. Meir believed that a person’s name is indicative of his characteristics.  When this innkeeper’s, Kidor’s, parents named him as a baby, they prophetically and probably inadvertently gave him a name that described his future treachery.  By analyzing his name, R. Meir could infer information about his personality.


Indeed, we see that R. Meir applied this principle to biblical names as well.  In Bereshit Rabbah (42:5) we find that R. Meir and his colleague R. Yehoshua ben Karha would interpret names, in that case the names of the five kings (Gen. 14:2).  For example, they explained that Bera, the king of Sodom, was a ben ra – an evil son.  Birsha, the king of Gomorra, was a ben rasha – a wicked son.  Just like R. Meir would deduce characteristics of a person based on his name, he would do similar to a biblical figure based on the name recorded in the Bible[1].  This practice actually has ample precedent.  We find that the Bible frequently gives reasons for people’s names.  All of Jacob’s sons’ names are explained in the Torah[2].  The Torah[3] also records why Isaac and Rachel named their two sons.  G-d Himself[4] seems to give the reason for Isaac’s name.  Assuming that every name has a reason, R. Meir attempted to understand those names for which the reason is not given[5].


While many names are merely descriptive of the parents’ emotions at the time of birth, e.g. (Gen. 29:32) “Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuven; for she declared, ‘It means: “The Lord has seen my affliction”; it also means: “Now my husband will love me”’”, some are prophetic.  Ever named his son Peleg (Gen. 10:25) “for in his days the world was divided.”  R. Yohanan in Berakhot (7b) tells us that Ruth was given that name because “she merited to have David, who pleased G-d with songs and praises, descend from her.”  In that same passage, R. Elazar tells us that in addition to the reason quoted above for naming him Reuven, Leah also gave him that name as a statement of how different he would be from Esav.  Esav sold his birthright and was vengeful and spiteful about it.  Reuven had his birthright taken away from him and was graceful about it[6].  Just like these names indicate something about the person, according to R. Meir all names do, whether biblical[7] or contemporary.


R. Yehudah and R. Yossi, however, seem to disagree.  They did not deduce from the innkeeper’s name and even pushed R. Meir to admit that he could not be certain of the accuracy of his deductions.


In contrast to R. Meir’s conviction about the descriptive quality of names, we find other sources that reveal less decisive views.


R. Yossi bar Hanina said: There are four types of names.  There are those whose names are pleasant and whose actions are pleasant.  There are those whose names are ugly and whose actions are ugly.  There are those whose names are ugly and whose actions are pleasant.  And there are those whose names are pleasant and whose actions are ugly.[8]


R. Yossi bar Hanina believes that names are sometimes indicative of a person’s characteristics.  However, that is not always the case.  Therefore, R. Yossi bar Hanina would certainly not advocate deducing information about a person from his name.  How can one know if that person is among those whose actions follow his name?


There is yet another source that goes even further.  Regarding Ever prophetically naming his son after events that will occur in this son’s lifetime, Bereshit Rabbah (37:7) records:


R. Shimon ben Gamliel said: Because the early ones used the divine spirit [i.e. prophecy], they would name based on an event.  However, we who do not use the divine spirit name based on our fathers.  R. Yossi ben Halafta said: Ever was a great prophet who named based on an event.[9]


R. Shimon ben Gamliel limits the descriptive quality of names to the days when prophecy was available.  Since prophecy has ceased[10], names no longer contain information about the individual.  R. Yossi ben Halafta goes even further and limits prophetic names to those who were great prophets.  Even during the times of prophecy, only prophets would name their children predictively.  Thus, from the fact that Ever named his son Peleg predictively, we can infer that he was a great prophet.  Similarly, while Leah may have named Reuven prophetically, we already know that the four mothers were prophetesses[11].


While we have seen much evidence on this topic, we have not yet fully evaluated it.  For purposes of effect, we have presented the sources as displaying conflicting opinions among the sages.  However, each approach will evaluate these sources differently and either magnify or minimize these differences.


III. Historical Approach


While the historical approach was chronologically the latest to develop, we will present it first.  A proponent of this approach would note that there is a dispute between R. Meir on the one hand and R. Yehudah and R. Yossi on the other.  R. Meir believed that names have special prophetic power to tell information about the person who bears it.  R. Yehudah and R. Yossi believed that names have no significance.  Indeed, we see R. Yossi, who is R. Yossi ben Halafta[12], say that the fact that Ever’s son’s name had significance indicates that Ever was a great prophet.  The overwhelming majority of parents, who are not great prophets, do not give their children names that have significance.


In this same generation we have R. Elazar (ben Shamua)[13] who found predictive significance in the name Reuven.  This does not, however, give us enough information to determine whether he was in R. Meir’s camp or R. Yehudah’s and R. Yossi’s.  As we shall see, there is further evidence that may point to his agreeing with R. Meir.


Also in this generation was R. Shimon ben Gamliel who said that only in the early generations did names have prophetic meaning.  Already in his time, and, consequently, in R. Meir’s time as well, names were merely memories of ancestors and had no indicative significance.


What we have seen so far is that in this one generation there were two opposing views on this subject.  It is important to keep in mind that these are all primarily students of R. Akiva and were witnesses to the devastating destruction of that time.  Of the countless scholars of their day, they were the sole survivors.  They saw their saintly teachers and colleagues being murdered and, somehow, managed to remain alive.  With this in mind, we can determine what these survivors were really arguing about.


In a somewhat pilpulistic way, an historian might point to an ambiguous teaching of R. Akiva, the mentor of these scholars, that could be the source of this disagreement.  It is well established, at least among historians, that the Talmudic sages struggled with the concepts of predestination and freedom of will[14].  On the one hand, Rava declared: “Children, (length of) life, and sustenance do not depend on merit but on destiny.”[15]  On the other hand, Rav Ammi has said: “There is no death without sin and no suffering without transgression.”[16]  R. Akiva’s view on this matter was famously phrased: “Everything is seen and freedom of choice is given.”[17]  However, this statement is by no means clear.  It could mean that R. Akiva believes that freedom of choice is given but, paradoxically, everything is still foreseen and predestined[18].  Alternatively, R. Akiva could be declaring that freedom of choice reigns supreme and that G-d observes – sees – whatever choice man makes[19].


It is over this ambiguity that R. Akiva’s students disagreed.  R. Meir, R. Elazar, and R. Yehoshua ben Karha believed that man’s destiny was predetermined and can be discerned in his name[20].  We find R. Meir supporting astrology as well.  “R. Meir said: When the luminaries are eclipsed it is a bad sign for the enemies of Israel.”[21]  Additionally, we find in Berakhot (7b) that R. Elazar believed that names determine one’s future. 


From where do we know that names determine?  R. Elazar[22] said: As it says (Psalms 46:9) ‘Go and see the works of G-d, who has wrought devastation in the land’ – read not devastation (shamot) but names (shemot).[23]


However, R. Yehudah, R. Yossi, and R. Shimon ben Gamliel believed that man has a free will to determine his destiny and his name cannot reflect the choices he will later make in life.


Generations later, R. Yossi bar Hanina would find a middle ground in the dispute over names that would merge the two opinions.  Man’s destiny is predetermined and his name reflects that.  However, man has the ability to choose his way out of that destiny.  While for many people their name is indicative of their nature or events in their lives, for some it is not because they utilized their free will[24].


This idea is reflected in the anonymous saying, “A man has three names – one that G-d called him, one that his parents called him, and one that he calls himself.”[25]  While a child may be given names – destinies – that G-d and parents have planned for him, he ultimately chooses his own destiny.


IV. Literal Harmonization Approach


It is possible, however, to read these passages and not see a widespread disagreement.  One can understand these texts literally and simply yet still see a general agreement.  The key to this approach is to separate the arbitrarily connected passages.  The text in Yoma is discussing inferring information about someone’s personality from his name, i.e. deducing from names.  The passage in Bereshit Rabbah about the names of the five kings and similar passages are about analyzing biblical texts, i.e. applying exegesis to names.  The former is about analyzing names; the latter is about analyzing the biblical presentation of names[26].


Regarding the first type, note that R. Meir explicitly told R. Yehudah and R. Yossi that he only suspected that the innkeeper was treacherous but was not certain.  Evidently, R. Meir was of the opinion that most names are indicative but some are not.  That is why he could only suspect the innkeeper.  R. Yehudah and R. Yossi believed that names are sometimes indicative but usually not.  Therefore, they chose not to believe bad things about the innkeeper based on his name but, based on their negative experience, opted to be extra-cautious the next time[27].  One can even go further and suggest that everyone agreed that most names are not indicative.  However, R. Meir is famous for his view that we are obligated to be concerned for even a minority[28].  Since most names are not indicative, R. Yehudah and R. Yossi were not concerned that the innkeeper’s name implied that he was an unsavory character.  However, since there are a minority of people for whom names are significant, R. Meir was concerned and acted accordingly[29].  With this in mind, certainly R. Yossi bar Hanina’s statement that names sometimes correspond to a person’s actions rings true.  Even R. Meir would agree to that.


The statement of R. Elazar can also be understood as a generalization.  The passage can be read as stating that names sometimes determine a person’s future.  In the case R. Elazar discussed, the name was predictive.  However, that is not always true.  As it says in Tanhuma (Ha’azinu 7), “One should be careful to call one’s son a name that is worthy of someone righteous because sometimes a name causes good or causes bad.”  Only sometimes is a name indicative.


Regarding the second type of passage, it is not surprising that R. Meir is labeled one who interprets names.  He is, indeed, well known for his skilled and original biblical exegesis[30].  Within this type of passage, we can detect two situations in which reasons are found for biblical names.  The first is when we know about a person’s character and then look back at his name to see if there is a hint in it.  Since some people have indications about their futures in their names, we look to see if our particular person was one of them.  For example, we know the sins that the spies committed[31].  Looking at their names, hints to these sins can be found[32].


The other case is when the biblical text has an unusual feature that indicates to the careful reader that there is a reason for that name.  For example, for the five kings named in Gen. (14:12), the actual names seem out of place.  Since we are told almost nothing else about these men, would it not have been sufficient to merely say “The king of Sodom, the king of Gomorra,…”?  The fact that these names are mentioned tunes the reader into the possibility that these names were given to teach us something about the kings[33].


Why was Ever considered a great prophet?  Those who name their children with the aid of the divine spirit give their children names that reflect what kind of people the children will later become.  Whether righteous or wicked, pleasant or ugly, the names are indicative of the person.  Ever did more than that.  Ever named his son based on an event that would occur in his lifetime[34].  Rather than describing a personality trait in the child, Ever predicted an event that would occur, an act of prophecy.  According to R. Shimon ben Gamliel in Bereshit Rabbah, this naming of a child based on a future event can no longer be done.


V. Allegorical Approach


There is yet a third approach to unraveling these conflicting texts.  While agreeing with the prior approach’s separation of passages that relate the analysis of actual people from passages that analyze names in biblical texts, this approach reads the stories of name analysis allegorically.  It sees in those strange episodes esoteric lessons on theology.  While the most famous allegorical commentator of Aggadah was R. Yehudah Loewe – the Maharal of Prague – there is an entire literature of this type of analysis.  The definitive formulation of this approach is R. Moshe Hayim Luzzatto’s Essay on the Aggadot[35].


In our case, an allegorical approach would suggest that, in actuality, no sage would adduce personality traits from someone’s name.  The story in Yoma about R. Yehudah and R. Yossi disagreeing with R. Meir is really a profound allegory for concepts of faith and this-worldliness.  The three sages never really traveled on a journey together.  Rather, the formulator of this allegory was referring to a more existential journey – that of human beings in this earthly world.  This passage is comparing these rabbis’ approaches to life in this world.  Just like in our journey to the eternal afterlife we are guests in this world[36], R. Meir, R. Yehudah, and R. Yossi were staying at an inn during their “journey.”


But how did they approach their temporary physical sustenance while in this life?  All three were learned, holy men who were dedicated to bringing their souls complete and righteous to the next world.  But how did they deal with this world?  R. Meir recognized that the ruler of this physical world, the embodiment of preoccupation with mundane, unspiritual matters, is evil.  R. Meir heard his name and knew that the owner of this inn was not to be trusted.  Therefore, while staying at the inn, R. Meir was wary of the innkeeper.  He focused inward, on his own spirituality.  R. Yehudah and R. Yossi, however, thought that perhaps they could take part in this physical world while still remaining on their paths to the next world.  They believed that they could participate in business, give their wallets to the innkeeper, and still maintain their spirituality.  However, the physical world is one of temptations and these two sages could not continue on their paths while trusting the innkeeper.  They learned their lesson and thereafter remained with R. Meir, solely in the camp of spirituality[37].  Like the later R. Yohanan[38], they recognized their error and abandoned their financial enterprises.


The sole passage that deals with deducing from people’s names, as opposed to interpreting the scriptural presentation of names, is seen through an allegorical lens as something much more significant.  It is a lesson in faith, focus, and, perhaps more fundamentally, on a physical/spiritual, this-worldly/next-worldly dualism.  We cannot learn from this story that people’s names have predictive significance.  That is merely the pomegranate peel under which lies the sweet seeds of esoteric wisdom[39].


With that explanation, the only other passage that relates to people’s names, as opposed to the interpretation of scriptural names, is that in Tanhuma (Ha’azinu 7) that a person should be cautious in naming a child because the name may be significant[40].


VI. Naming Children


We have seen that while we can infer from some isolated passages that names are indicative of people’s personalities, the conclusion we draw from analyzing a broad spectrum of passages is quite different.  Sometimes, perhaps rarely, names are significant.  Most of the time, however, they offer no information about one’s personality.  If so, what responsibility do parents have when naming their newborn child?  We are not addressing the many customs in this area because these vary by family and community.  Indeed, it need not be said that everyone is obligated to follow his ancestral customs when they do not contradict halakhah.  However, let us speak of the hypothetical parents who lack customs and wish to follow the teachings of rabbinic literature.  What lessons can we find for them?


Perhaps most explicit is the advice we cited above from Tanhuma (Ha’azinu 7): “One should be careful to call one’s son a name that is worthy of someone righteous because sometimes a name causes good or bad.”  Because there is the possibility that a child’s name will determine his future, parents should give their children good names.  This is certainly sound advice.


Additionally, Yoma 38b tells of a child named Do’eg who met an unfortunate end due to his being given the name of a wicked person.  “The name of the wicked will rot” (Proverbs 10:7) is understood by the Gemara as being a special curse on anyone who has the same name as a wicked person[41].  It is therefore imperative that parents avoid naming children after Do’eg or Haman.


Furthermore, R. Shimon ben Gamliel in Bereshit Rabbah (37:7) says that “we who do not use the divine spirit name based on our fathers.”  An explanation for this practice may be that it is, in addition to the showing of respect for one’s ancestors, a surefire method of maintaining “good” names.  If previous generations were given good names, then future generation will as well when they are named after their ancestors[42].


An example the Mekhilta gives of a good name brings us nicely to our next topic.  Yitro, we know, was an advisor to Pharoah[43] who later became a pagan priest[44]. He had seven names but of his most famous name, Yitro, the midrash says “[He was called Yitro] because he added (yiter) good deeds”[45].  The midrash similarly finds positive derivations for his other six names.  While this may be merely a case of biblical exegesis, it is certainly significant that Yitro’s name was given to him by his gentile parents.  It is not a Jewish name yet it still foretold good tidings to its bearer.  It seems quite plausible to infer from Yitro that even a non-Jewish name can be good and can fulfill the advice of the midrash to give a “good” name.


Indeed, there is ample precedent for giving non-Jewish names to Jewish children.  While Moshe’s name was given to him by a gentile – the daughter of Pharoah – it is this name that was subsequently used by G-d and the Jewish people.  Yet, R. Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin explains[46] that this name is ancient Egyptian for “the son”, i.e. the Egyptian princess’ (adopted) son.  Linguists also tell us that the name Pinehas is of Egyptian origin[47].  Much later, during the Babylonian exile, many major figures seem to have two name – one Jewish and one in the vernacular[48].


However, none of this speculation is necessary to demonstrate that there have historically been Jews who used non-Jewish names.  The Gemara in Gittin (11b) says it explicitly.


Divorce contracts that come from lands of the sea [i.e. the diaspora] with the signatures of witnesses, even though the names are like gentiles’ names [the contracts are] valid because the names of most Jews in the diaspora are like gentiles’ names[49].


A brief review of the names of some Tannaim yields a number of obviously non-Jewish names.  Here is an admittedly non-comprehensive list:  R’ Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, R’ Yehudah bar Ilai, R’ Hanina ben Dosa, R’ Shimon ben Azai, Anigonus, Antigonus of Sokho, Ariston, R’ Hutzpit the translator, R’ Shimon ben Zoma, R’ Dostai of Bartuta, R’ Yehudah ben Beteira, Ben Papius, Avtalyon, R’ Tarfon, Sumkhus, Avtilas.


Similarly, looking at the amoraic Papa family, whose names are mentioned in the famous hadran text customarily recited by many upon celebrating the completion of a talmudic tractate, we see some clearly non-Jewish names.  Papa, Hanina bar Papa, Rami bar Papa, Nahman bar Papa, Ahai bar Papa, Aba Mari bar Papa, Rafram bar Papa, Rakhish bar Papa, Surhav bar Papa, Ada bar Papa, Daro bar Papa[50].


As we saw with Yitro, this does not necessarily contradict the advice of the midrash to give names that are appropriate for someone righteous.  Even non-Jewish names can indicate that their bearer is destined for greatness.  This does, however, seem to contradict another famous midrash.


Israel was redeemed from Egypt for four reasons – that they did not change their names, their language, they did not gossip, and there could not be found among them anyone promiscuous[51].


This midrash seems to be a clear statement that Jews should not deviate from their traditional names.  Yet, it is contradicted by the practice cited in Gittin and observed even among some great rabbis of the Mishnah and Gemara.  Did these Jews, the majority in the diaspora at one point and the parents who merited having sons who became talmidei hakhamim, commit a grievous error by giving their children non-Jewish names[52]?


This question has been answered by many[53] in noting that the Jews in Egypt did not, and were not obligated to, fulfill the commandments.  Because the Torah had not yet been given they were a cultural group.  Had they changed their names, language, etc. they would have been giving up the only things that bound them together as a people – their culture.  Once the Torah was given, however, it replaced Jewish culture as the binding force of the Jewish people[54].  It is the Torah – its study and observance – that binds the Jewish people together and whose rejection would be a dissolution of the fabric that holds together the Jewish people.  Changing names is less of a danger to a nation that is united in its dedication to Torah.


VII. Conclusion


The purpose of this article was to explore the attitude of rabbinic literature towards people’s names.  We have seen that, contrary to popular belief, names generally are not prophetically inspired and do not indicate anything about their holder’s personality.  The only clear guideline for giving a name is that it should be worthy of someone righteous and should not be that of a wicked person[55].  However, the practice of naming after ancestors is also noted.  Furthermore, a non-Jewish name that satisfies these criteria seems to be perfectly acceptable.


However, it needs to be again mentioned that family and communal customs are important for social, familial, and halakhic reasons.  They cannot be simply disregarded, certainly not without first consulting an halakhic authority.  Furthermore, the same reasons that made holding on to Jewish culture so important in Egypt are also relevant to today's non- and marginally observant Jews.  We are not recommending abandoning traditions or loosening the bonds of Jewish society.  We have only come to investigate the attitudes in rabbinic literature towards the names of people.

I would like to express my thanks to Baruch Selevan, Rabbi Moshe Schapiro, and Rabbi Seth Mandel for their assistance in writing this essay.  Of course, they bear no responsibility for the final product.


[1] Cf. Ruth Rabbah 2:5

[2] Gen. 29:32-30:24; 35:18

[3] Gen. 25:25-26

[4] Gen. 17:17-19.  Cf. Rashi, ad loc.

[5] R. Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Eidels, Hiddushei Maharsha, Bava Batra 14b Hiddushei Aggadot sv Lamah

[6] As to why this additional reason was warranted, see R. Eliyahu of Vilna, Imrei Noam, Berakhot ad loc. sv Reuven; R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes, Glosses ad loc.; R. David Pardo, Maskil LeDavid, Vayetze sv Vatikra; R. Shimon Ushenberg, Devek Tov, Vayetze sv Vatikra.  R. David Luria, Notes to Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, 36:32-36 understands this not as an additional reason but as a variant translation and elaboration of “the Lord has seen my affliction.”  For other similar midrashim, see Torah Shelemah, vol. 5 p. 1179, Gen. Ch. 29 n. 101-102.

[7] Cf. Sotah 34b; Bereshit Rabbah 71:3; Bamidbar Rabbah 16:10; Tanhuma, Shelah 6, Ha’azinu 7 about the spies’ names.

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 71:3; Bamidbar Rabbah 16:10; Tanhuma Shemot 2, Shelah 6; Yalkut Shimoni, Vayetze 126, Ezra 1067.

[9] Cf. also Seder Olam Rabbah ch. 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Noah 62, I Chronicles 1074.

[10] Seder Olam Rabbah ch. 6; Sanhedrin 11a; Yoma 9b; Bava Batra 12a.

[11] Bereshit Rabbah 67:9; Rashi, Gen. 29:34; Torah Shelemah, vol. 5 p. 1180, Gen. Ch. 29 n. 107.  Cf. R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes, Glosses to Megillah 14a sv Sheva.

[12] Rashi, Zevahim 58b sv Verav

[13] Rashi, Shabbat 19b sv R. Elazar; Eruvin 38b sv Had; Yevamot 72b sv Ra’iti, 111b sv Vekhen; Ketuvot 40a sv R. Elazar; Gittin 31b sv R”E.

[14] Cf. Efraim Urbach, Hazal, ch. 11

[15] Moed Katan 28a

[16] Shabbat 55a

[17] Avot 3:15

[18] Maimonides, ad loc.

[19] Rashi, ad loc.

[20] R. Ya’akov Ibn Haviv, Hakotev to Ein Ya’akov, Berakhot 7b sv Amrah; R. Saul Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine, p. 189 n. 25.

[21] Tosefta Sukkah 2:7

[22] Or R. Eliezer. Cf. the marginal note in the Vilna Shas; Ein Ya’akov, ad loc.

[23] Cf. Tanhuma, Ha’azinu 7, Vayeshev 6

[24] R. Yitzhak of Karlin, Keren Orah, Sotah 34b

[25] Torah Shelemah, vol. 9 p. 3, Shemot ch. 1 n. 8.  Cf. Kohelet Rabbah 7:1:3; Tanhuma Vayakhel 1.  This can also explain the midrash in Mekhilta Bo 16 on Shemot 13:1-2; Bereshit Rabbah 45:8; Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 32 that there are three (or six) people to whom G-d gave names before they were born.  While G-d gives everyone names, He usually gives names that reflect a person’s starting point – his mazal – and a person gives himself a name that reflects his choices in life.  For these three (or six) people, G-d gave prophetic names that were indicative of the definite future.

[26] Cf. R. Avraham ben HaRambam, Ma’amar Al Odot Derashot Hazal, ed. Margoliyot pp. 91-92, 94.  Cf. however R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes, Mevo HaTalmud, ch. 21.

[27] R. Moshe Ibn Haviv, Tosefot Yom Hakipurim, Yoma 38b sv Rabbi Meir

[28] Yevamot 61b, 119a; Gittin 2b; Avodah Zarah 34b, 40b; Hullin 6a, 11b, 86a; Bekhorot 19b, 42b; Nidah 31b, 48a.

[29] R. Shlomo Zalman Braun, She’arim Metzuyanim Bahalakhah, Yoma ad loc.

[30] Jacob Bruell, Mevo HaMishnah, vol. 1 pp. 163-164

[31] Numbers 13-14

[32] See note 7 above.

[33] R. Zev Wolf Einhorn, Perush Maharzav to Bereshit Rabbah 42:5

[34] According to Rashi, the name Peleg refers to the dispersion that occurred in the land.  According to R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, the name refers to the halving of the average lifespan.

[35] Printed at the beginning of the Vilna (Romm) edition of Ein Ya’akov and as part of Luzzatto’s Sefer HaMa’amarim.  For an English translation, see R. Aharon Feldman’s The Juggler and the King, pp. 203-211.

[36] Cf. Avot 4:21; Ruth Rabbah 4:13; Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth 606.

[37] For a further explanation, see R. Moshe Pizentz, Darah Moshe cited in Hidushei Gaonim, Ein Ya’akov to Yoma 83b.

[38] Ta’anit 21a

[39] R. Shlomo ben Shimon Duran, Milhemet Mitzvah, Second Introduction

[40] While the midrash gives biblical examples which should place it in the second type of passages, the expository ones, these seem to be merely handy illustrations of this real-life principle.

[41] The Gemara does not specify whether this child was given the name Do’eg to commemorate the wicked man or the parents chose the name for a different reason.  If the reason is the former, then a child may be named after his great-grandfather Adolph without fear of the biblical curse.  If the reason is the latter, then a child should never be named Adolph.  Tosafot, Yoma 38b sv Delo, Ketuvot 104b sv Shenei imply that the former is the correct reason.

[42] The exception to this is when an evil person arises, such as Adolph Hitler.  While previous generations may have been named Adolph, depending on the resolution of the issue in note 41 future generations may not because of this evil person.

[43] Sotah 11a

[44] Exodus 18:1; Sotah 43a

[45] Mekhilta on Exodus 18:1; Rashi, ad loc.; Sifrei on Numbers 10:29; Tanhuma, Beshalah 4; Shemot Rabbah, 27:8; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 169.

[46] Ha’amek Davar, Exodus 2:10.  Cf. Malbim, HaTorah VeHaMitzvah ad loc.; James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, pp. 140-142.

[47] R. Binyamin Yosef Mandel in letter published in R. Matis Blum, Torah LaDa’at, vol. 3 p. 288 relates it to the Egyptian word for tadpole.

[48] Hadassah/Esther, Daniel/Beltshazar, Hananiah/Shadrakh, Mishael/Meshakh, and Azariah/Aved Nego. Cf. Esther 2:7; Daniel 1:7.  The origin of the name Mordekhai is a matter of dispute.  Cf. Hullin 139b and Da’at Mikra to Esther 2:5.  These two approaches are probably not mutually exclusive as one discusses the origin of the name Mordekhai and the other finds in it hints of greatness.

[49] See also the discussion at the top of the previous side, 11a.

[50] It is also no secret that there were many medieval Jews with non-Jewish names.  A skim through the Artscroll Rishonim book yielded the following sample of great rabbis with either their or their father's name being non-Jewish: R' Hisdai Crescas, R' Hisdai Ibn Shaprut, R' Donash ben Lavrat, R' Donash ben Tamim, R' Klonimus of Lucca, R' Klonimus of Rome, R' Maimon ben Yosef, R' Menahem ben Saruk, R' Moshe Ibn Gikatilla, R' Peter ben Yosef, R' Profiat Yitzhak (Duran), R' Todros Abulafia, R' Vidal of Tolosa, R' Yehoshua Ibn Shuiv, R' Yehudah ben Klonimus, R' Yehudah ben Kuraish, R' Yitzhak Ibn Gias, R' Yitzhak Ibn Latif, R' Yonah Ibn Janah, R' Yosef Ibn Aknin, R' Yosef Ibn Avisur, R' Yosef Ibn Migash.


Similarly, Ramban writes in his novellae to Gittin 34b (emphasis added):


Those Jews in the diaspora whose names are Jewish but have other non-Jewish names, even though these other names are only nicknames because the gentiles cannot pronounce Jewish names, since they are known by these names and most people call them by these names we must write both the non-Jewish names and the Jewish names, by which they sign, [in a divorce contract].


Clearly, in the Ramban's time there were many Jews who had two names and commonly used their non-Jewish name.  This is also confirmed by skimming through medieval responsa and paying attention to the names mentioned both by those posing the questions and the involved parties.  A study of these names would make a fascinating dissertation.


R. Eliezer Silver is quoted in his biography as making this point.


On another occasion, at an Agudah convention, one of the youth leaders was introduced as Fabian, the name he regularly used.  An old-timer shouted from the audience that it was disgraceful that an Agudah leader should bear such a non-Jewish name.  To this Rabbi Silver quickly rose and retorted, “If one of the authors of Tosafot was known as Rabbenu Peter, then our young colleague can be called Fabian.” (Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Silver Era, p. 261)

[51] Vayikra Rabbah 32:5; Bamidbar Rabbah 20:22; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:12; Tanhuma, Balak 16; Mekhilta on Exodus 12:6 (Bo, par. 5); Torah Shelemah on Exodus 1:1, vol. 8 p. 9 n. 26.  Regarding the famously elusive variant that the Jews did not change their clothes, cf. Midrash Lekach Tov on Exodus 6:6; Torah Shelemah, vol. 8 addenda ch. 3 p. 239.

[52] It could be argued that the fact that Jews changed their names is the reason that this exile has lasted for so long.

[53] R. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe, Orah Hayim 4:66; R. Yoel Teitelbaum, Iggerot Maharit, p. 294.  Cf. Iggerot Moshe, Orah Hayim 5:10; Torat Cohanim, Behukotai 2:8:10.  Cf. however R. Moshe Schick, Responsa Maharam Schick, Yoreh Deah 169.  On R. Schick’s main thesis, see R. Shmuel de Modina, Responsa Maharshdam, Yoreh Deah 199.

[54] Cf. R. Saadia Gaon, Emunot VeDe’ot, 3:7

[55] See note 41